Until this year, Iranian companies participated in the Internet primarily as consumers of international bandwidth. In 2010, however, they have expanded their scope. Earlier this year the Iranian state telecommunications company began providing Internet transit services in Afghanistan and Iraq, acting as a carrier for both commercial and government traffic. Over the next few days, we'll take a look at this interesting evolution, and speculate a bit about what it might mean for the growth of the Eurasian Internet.
Imagine for a moment that you're a business owner or government minister in a region with very limited telecommunications infrastructure. You see Internet access as a critical priority for social stability and economic development — right alongside traditional voice telecoms, reliable electricity, and safe roads. But your options for international Internet connectivity are limited, because you can't directly access submarine fiberoptic cables, and geosynchronous satellite connectivity won't support modern nation-scale Internet access. What would you do? You'd talk with your larger neighbors, and try to negotiate Internet transit through them to the outside world.
This is exactly the scenario playing out in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan — two landlocked regions whose technical infrastructure has decayed during years of war. In each case, they may have found a willing investment partner and Internet service provider right next door: the Iranian government.
Iran's Internet: Evolving Tool of Diplomacy?
Iran's own Internet ecosystem is, as we have noted before, rich and well-developed, with roughly the same number of internal Autonomous Systems routing traffic as South Africa or Greece. In 2009 and 2010, Iran took action to increase and diversify their sources of inbound international bandwidth, buying new capacity from Turkey and Russia's national providers, as well as the range of international carriers who serve the Gulf states via submarine cables.
Iran has longstanding goals to share energy transport and electrical transmission capacity with its neighbors, two common paths along which communications fiber can be laid. Sharing the Internet with Iraq and Afghanistan is a natural next step in the expansion of Iran's regional influence, using cross-border infrastructure investment relationships as a tool to improve regional security. After all, to export infrastructure is to export influence, and Iran knows that both Iraq and Afghanistan will take help where they can get it.
Iraq itself is not landlocked, and there are even plans to land a submarine cable in the south. But the far northern autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is a long, long way from the potential landing station, both geographically and politically, and local companies appear to be hedging their bets by securing Iranian connectivity. Several companies have shared over $200M in reconstruction contracts for telecommunications in Iraqi Kurdistan so far. Two of these, IQ Networks and Al-Sard Group (aka Sanatel), both appear to now purchase Internet transit from Iran's state telecommunications provider, partially owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Looking at this 2010 transit shift plot, for example, one can see CellNet, a Kurdish enterprise. They start 2010 with 100% Internet transit through a satellite provider (LuxLink), before adding IQ networks' Iranian transit in late April, and then adding Newroz Telecom's Turkish transit in July for added diversity, having phased out their satellite connection altogether. This is the signature of a healthy Internet ecosystem: a small company reacting rationally to the availability of new, higher-quality sources of international Internet transit by balancing its usage among diverse alternatives.
Note that the Iranian transit on display here is just a small but interesting corner of the developing Iraqi national telecoms market. Other national providers, including Zain Kuwait, have declared their willingness to come to Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future, and the Iraqi mobile market is now one of the most competitive in the middle east. The picture is likely to continue to be one of flux for some time to come, a situation which can only benefit Iraqi consumers through increased choice and lower pricing. Iran is clearly testing the waters with their provision of Internet transit in Iraq; it's unclear what their long-term role in the Iraqi telecoms market will be.
Next time: Afghanistan
In part 2, we'll continue with a look at Iran's provision of telecommunications services to the Afghan government.